Paying the price: Punjab state Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia (second from left), who was handed out punishment for distorting a Sikh hymn by incorporating BJP candidate Arun Jaitley’s name in it during a religious service, washing dishes as part of religious community service at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. — AFP
VARANASI: Voters headed to the polls in the climax of India’s marathon election, with frontrunner Narendra Modi seeking a crowning victory in the holy city of Varanasi for his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi is standing in the famed pilgrimage site on the banks of the river Ganges in the final phase of the world’s biggest election, a contest which has been marred by religious divisions and a vitriolic campaign.
The 63-year-old, expected to become prime minister if the Hindu nationalist BJP and its allies secure a majority when results are announced on Friday, urged residents to turn out in record numbers.
Anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal from the upstart Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party is also standing and hoping to upset Modi, who has spent little time in the city as he campaigned across the country.
“I have voted for the about-to-be PM of India, Modi,” 35-year-old Setupati Tripathi said after casting his ballot in Varanasi.
“With him winning the Varanasi seat, I am also confident about the development of this millennia-old city as a tourist destination,” he added.
The first voters filed into polling stations at 7am, with early queues indicating enthusiasm for the most high-profile contest of the five weeks of voting.
The election is rich in religious symbolism, with Modi’s decision to stand here seen as reinforcing his Hindu nationalist credentials during a campaign when he has steered clear of the hardline rhetoric for which he was previously known.
The four-time chief minister of western Gujarat state has campaigned on a pledge of development, investment and jobs to revive the flagging economy after 10 years of leftist rule by the Congress party.
But he remains a deeply polarising figure over allegations that he failed to swiftly curb deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat which left at least 1,000 people dead shortly after he came to power there.
Varanasi, a sacred city around 680km east of Delhi where Hindus are cremated on the river banks, counts a large Muslim population which would be expected to vote against Modi.
“The way things have been shaping up in the last three days, everybody is saying Modi is losing,” Kejriwal, who has focused on a grassroots campaign, said in Varanasi.
More than 66 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots yesterday in three electorally critical states in the final phase of the election, which began on April 7.
Counting takes place on Friday and results are expected on the same day.
Opinion polls show voters have turned against Congress, which has dominated Indian politics since independence, over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown in the last two years.
The BJP is forecast to win the most seats in the 543-member parliament, but it will likely fall short of an outright majority, meaning it will need to forge its own coalition with smaller and regional parties.
India’s opinion polls have proved wrong in the past and can be unreliable given the size and remoteness of sections of the country, which has 814 million eligible voters, the biggest electorate in history.
The first exit polls – surveys of voters as they leave polling stations – were expected later yesterday, once voting ends at 6pm.
In a video message, Modi paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people who “stood out in the scorching sun for hours to give strength to our democracy” during the election.
He also praised Varanasi for its “its peace, its goodwill and its unity”.
“Everyone is our own, we have to love our own and we have to walk forward with everyone,” he said. — AFP